Has Radiohead been dissected to death yet? OK Computer is 15
Fifteen years ago on Saturday, Radiohead released a follow-up to The Bends -- which two years earlier had essentially cemented them as the new leaders of Brit Pop. Called OK Computer, the album almost single-handedly destroyed the Brit styling as we knew it. (The Spice Girls helped too.) The Bends was a leap forward from their 1992 debut, Pablo Honey, which successfully fused Brit Pop and grunge at times, and was at turns outright boring. But there was a marathon's-worth of steps between The Bends and OK Computer. Does all of this rhetoric sound familiar?
Even if you have -- however improbably -- never listened to even one note of their music, you know Radiohead exists. Even if you despise them, their influence over the past nearly two decades is undeniable. But that question remains: Have they been talked about, picked apart, viewed under a microscope so frequently that it's hardly worth doing any longer? If you're still reading this, the answer is likely "no."
OK Computer was nothing short of astonishing. The lyrics moved away from angst-filled introspection into abstract malaise territory, but somehow felt infinitely more human than anything lead singer Thom Yorke had written prior. The songs took sharp, organ-rearranging turns that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up and coaxed smile all at once. The ideas contained within its 53 minutes were sometimes dangerous because they were wholly new. It's often said that new ideas are simply the combination of old ideas in a way that hasn't been done before, that was true of OK Computer but in certain places ("Fitter Happier," "Climbing Up the Walls") Radiohead managed to generate new ideas from whole cloth. This was the last revolutionary album the world has seen.
I was in college in a small town in southern Minnesota then and much of what I was listening to at the time (Korn, Deftones, etc.) had little in common with this weird album everyone in my art classes was suddenly talking non-stop about that fall when we returned to school. I had largely avoided Radiohead up until that point, though I thought their video for "Just" from The Bends was nothing short of brilliant. I bought it one day not long after classes began and I didn't really know what to make of it but, oddly, "Fitter Happier" was the song that won me over.
This album has never been far from my reach (or, honestly, my thoughts) since. It made my mind race and I listened to it often when I was painting something awful or coming up with some goofy sculpture and writing out an equally goofy line of BS to justify said sculpture's existence at a critique. Eventually, while wrestling with chicken wire and plaster-coated cheesecloth one Saturday afternoon, it dawned on me that I liked writing out the defense of my piece more than creating the actual piece. I had "Exit Music (For a Film)" in my ears when it dawned on me -- this is not poetic license, that actually happened: I decided to become a writer while listening to this album and I remember it like it happened five minutes ago. This album has become a touchstone, of sorts, in my life.
In the 15 years since the release of OK Computer, Radiohead has continued to push in directions most people hadn't even considered. Kid A lived up to the nearly impossible task of being OK's follow-up by creating a sense of spinning dissonance and being eminently listenable all at once. Its title track is like listening to Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk at the same time while neither interferes with the complete intake of the other. "The National Anthem" is somehow tuneful while at the same time sounding like a song that's being disassembled right in front of you. They followed up a benchmark album by creating another one -- while the benchmarks themselves hardly resemble each other at all. The significance of this feat is almost as astounding as the fact that people aren't still talking about it on a near-daily basis. They pushed the envelope and then turned it inside-out while keeping it intact and not even putting any creases in it.
Since, they've been quietly defiant at every given turn: Returning back to The Bends era and dialing the electronics way back for the politically-charged Hail To the Thief. Releasing In Rainbows at first as a pay-what-you-can download before a standard release eight weeks later. Using turntablist -- TURNTABLIST -- elements on The King of Limbs.
The whole of their output is by far the strongest of any band since, yes, the Beatles. Instead of sticking with what they know, they have continually branched out into new territory and bent that territory to their will, making it their own. There is essentially nothing that can ever sound like them again, because the manner in which Radiohead touches on so many disparate root sources it would immediately be branded a rip-off. This probably annoyed Jeff Tweedy to no end after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's release.
The year 1997 found much of this country mired in nu-metal and awful sugary, throwaway pop music that now sounds so dated it's a punchline. But on the third Tuesday of June that year, an album full of genuinely new ideas about what, exactly, music was and what it could be was set forth into the world. It has grown to be regarded as one of the best albums ever recorded. As the world becomes increasingly more digital, the restless, gloomy unease contained within it becomes increasingly more prescient.
Arguably, we learned to dissect the way that we now pick apart what we listen to because of OK Computer, and the creative atmosphere that followed its release. The only problem -- and the reason we're here doing it again -- is that no album has been quite so fun to dissect since then.
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